IT IS INTERESTING to compare “71”, the story of a British soldier who gets left behind in enemy territory during the days of the Northern Ireland “troubles”, with “Behind Enemy Lines”, the story of an American Navy navigator who is shot down and finds himself in enemy territory in warring Bosnia.
The two movies start with the same basic conceit: the good guy finds himself isolated and hunted by others intent upon his death. And somewhere out there, battling against time and the odds, his colleagues try to locate and rescue him.
Both movies are well-made, grippingly well-told stories with engaging and likable protagonists (Owen Wilson as the American and Jack O’Connell as the Brit (Jack who? you may ask. He was Calisto of “300: Rise of an Empire”. Well, I guess it’s something.)
But oh what a cultural chasm there is between these two takes on war. “Behind…” offers us a modern version of an untamed Wild West and a protagonist whose cowboy character is an archetype of the American idea of the hero: the rebellious loner, uncomfortable with authority and easily able to adapt and turn the tables on his enemies, no matter how many there are. His eventual rescue is a moment of jingoistic, music-thumping triumph, both for his deering-do and the extraordinary perseverance and stolidity of his tough-love commanding officer (Gene Hackman) “Behind…” was the inaugural movie of now veteran director (of slick rubbish) John Moore (“Max Payne”, “A Good Day to Die Hard”, “The Omen 2006”) and Emmy-winning composer Don Davis (“The Matrix Revolutions and Reloaded” etc). Made in 2001, it cost $40M to make and grossed $90M. It was so successful that it morphed from movie to brand and spawned three direct-to-video sequels, “Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil”, “Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia” and “SEAL Team: Behind Enemy Lines”
“71” is cut from different cloth. The slickly manufactured excitement of rooting for Hollywood icon, Wilson, is replaced by a riveting immersion into a thoroughly credible and dystopian world of Falls Road. This was the demarcation between the Protestants and the Catholics. The feel-good cathartic escapism of “Behind…” is here replaced by the intellectual rigour of a thoughtful dissection of some of the fault-lines of Northern Ireland in1971. Nothing escapist here. Like Wilson’s character (Lt Chris Burnett), Derbyshire Private Gary Hook – the protagonist of “71”- is also resourceful and determined. But unlike Burnett’s swaggering bravado, Hook is mainly frightened, confused and finally just pissed off. He’s more a trapped, wounded animal desperate to run anywhere that could lead to safety and heavily reliant on luck and a couple of good Samaritans than a typical movie hero.
The clear binary world of good v bad of “Behind…” dissolves into the darker, murkier, more real world of this other recent civil war. For everyone around Hook (the British Army, their various shady manipulating counterinsurgents, the local police force, the IRA, the Paras who are fighting against them and the Command chain itself) is flawed, morally compromised and untrustworthy. People act not out of honor or even political ideals but upon whatever it takes to get the job done now, no matter how dirty and dishonest. Hook is a hero based not upon his heroics, but upon his sense of basic human honesty and integrity.
The plot turns on the moment when the Private’s squadron, under-protected due to the naiveté of a posh-boy Lieutenant (Sam Reid from “Belle”), is sent in to provide back-up to the local police force in a house to house search for hidden weapons. It’s a search marked by the brutality of the army’s police allies. The search is interrupted when the squadron is confronted and attacked by a riot of understandably angry citizens, during which a fellow soldier is shot in the face. And in the melee, as the army beats a hasty retreat, Hook is left behind.
Director Yann Demange (for whom this is also a first-feature) contrasts the orderliness of training with its clear rules and leadership hierarchies with the world where Hook now finds himself. He’s not simply behind enemy lines, he’s behind moral lines. He’s now in a world where alliances are ever shifting, leadership is fuelled by an anarchic clash of interests and politics, and where the good guys are really far from good.
Apart from a lull when Hook, having been blown-up, is rescued by a couple of Catholic Samaritans (Charlie Murphy from “Philomena” and Richard Dormer from “Game of Thrones”) he spends most of the movie running. He’s running from everyone. The paras want him dead as he’s the enemy, and the Army counterinsurgents want him dead as he’s a witness to their corrupt practices. He’s also running from away from their morally squalid world. He has to get away…back to his kid brother and back to a world of simpler loves and loyalties. (And good luck with that)
“71”, written by Gregory Burke who also wrote the much applauded stage play, “Black Watch”, is an ambitious and intelligent movie. It’s both a gutsy action movie and a war movie that resonates with historical verisimilitude.
I wonder how “Fury” with its big star names and big star budget will compare